What to know about 2 former US Marines held by Russia ahead of Putin-Biden summit

A 29-year-old from Texas was sentenced to prison last year in Russia.

June 14, 2021, 10:43 PM

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden are meeting today in Geneva – and among the high-stakes topics expected to be discussed, the world awaits an answer on whether two Americans will come home in exchange for the return of Russians jailed in the U.S.

Putin indicated on Friday that he’d be willing to talk about a potential ‘prisoner swap’ for the two former U.S. Marines, Trevor Reed and Paul Whelan.

Here's what know about both men:

Trevor Reed

Reed, a 29-year-old from Texas, fell into the hands of Russian police after a party in Moscow in the summer of 2019 while visiting his girlfriend. He was initially taken to a police station to sober up but after agents from Russia’s FSB intelligence service arrived to question him, he was abruptly charged with assaulting two police officers, his family said. He was sentenced to nine years in prison last July in a trial that was denounced as absurd by the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

Trevor Reed was arrested in Russia in 2019 and sentenced to nine years in prison in July 2020.

"In any real court system in the world, there’s no way he would have been convicted,” said his father, Joey Reed.

During the court hearings, the two police officers struggled to recall the alleged incident and contradicted themselves so much that at one stage in a session, attended by ABC News, even the judge began to laugh at them.

The U.S. has called for Reed to be released, saying his conviction was patently ridiculous.

"This conviction, and a sentence of nine years, for an alleged crime that so obviously did not occur, is ridiculous. I cannot even say 'miscarriage of justice,' because clearly 'justice' was not even considered. This was theater of the absurd," Ambassador John J. Sullivan said in a July 2020 statement.

In the military Reed had served as a Marine presidential guard, whose assignments include providing security at Camp David when President Barack Obama was there.

After his son’s arrest, Joey Reed took matters into his own hands and spent over a year in Russia trying to free him, staying alone in Moscow through most of the coronavirus pandemic. Paula Reed told “World News Tonight” on Monday that her husband’s work has been tireless.

Parents Joey and Paula Reed, of former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, spoke to "World News Tonight" on June 14.

“There's so many nights that you don't sleep and you're just thinking constantly,” she said. “Joey has just been, almost 24-hours a day, working on Trevor's case ... because of the time difference, he has to communicate with the attorneys at weird night hours.”

“It's just been really, really hard taxing for our family, for Joey, myself, his sister ... But obviously, it's roughest on Trevor,” she added.

The U.S. embassy accused Russia last week of blocking access to Reed and failing in its obligations to inform it of Reed’s health after he fell sick with COVID-19 nearly three weeks ago. The embassy and Reed’s family said they don’t know his condition and that they are concerned for him.

Paul Whelan

U.S. officials believe Paul Whelan, who was detained several months before Reed, was also taken as a possible bargaining chip.

U.S. ex-Marine Trevor Reed, who was detained in 2019 and accused of assaulting police officers, is escorted before a court hearing in Moscow, March 11, 2020.
Tatyana Makeyeva/Reuters, FILE

Whelan was arrested by the FSB in December 2018 at his hotel in Moscow while visiting for a friend’s wedding. He was charged with espionage and sentenced to 16 years in a prison camp in a case that his family and U.S. officials was also fabricated.

Whelan, 51, a native of Michigan, left the Marines in 2008 after being convicted in a court martial on larceny charges and given a bad conduct discharge.

When he was arrested in Moscow he was a global security director for the auto parts company BorgWarner. A self-described Russophile, Whelan had travelled several times on holiday to Russia and had tried to teach himself the language.

Current and former U.S. officials have said they believe Whelan was the victim of a KGB-style sting. He has said a Russian friend collaborating with the FSB planted a memory card on him while visiting him in his hotel room during the wedding trip. Five minutes after the friend called on Whelan unannounced FSB agents burst into the room and detained him, Whelan said.

Whelan is now held in a prison camp a few hundred miles from Moscow.

Russia has repeatedly floated the idea of trading the two Americans for Russians jailed in the U.S. on criminal convictions.

Putin spoke about Reed, calling him a “drunken troublemaker” during an interview with NBC on Friday.

But he suggested that he was ready to discuss a possible prisoner swap for the men, replying “yes, yes” when asked if he would consider talking about it with Biden.

Russian officials have indicated they would like to trade Reed and Whelan for two Russians held in the U.S.: Viktor Bout -- one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers and dubbed ‘the Merchant of Death’— and also Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot currently serving a lengthy jail sentence for a drug smuggling conviction.

President Joe Biden takes questions during a news conference at the NATO summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, June 14, 2021.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Whelan’s family released an audio message from him on Monday, recorded from the prison camp in central Russia where he is being held. In it, he appealed to Biden to help free him.

“Please bring me home to my family and my dog Flora where I belong. Thank you, Mr. President, for your commitment to returning me home and bringing this deplorable hostage situation to an expedient conclusion,” Whelan said in the recording that his family said was made on May 30.

He said he was innocent and noted that he had now been in detention longer than the Americans taken during the Iran hostage crisis during the Iranian revolution.

The Biden Administration said that freeing Whelan and Reed is a priority. President Joe Biden is scheduled to meet with Putin on Wednesday following a NATO summit.

“What I’ll convey to President Putin is that I’m not looking for conflict with Russia, but that we will respond if Russia continues its harmful activities,” said Biden on Monday.

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